by Jake Fitzpatrick

I didn’t know much about Maïwenn’s Jeanne Du Barry before attending a recent screening. Reading up only ever so slightly would probably have saved me from thirty minutes of interrogating my housemates about French history. Upon doing so, however, the film began to fit together like pieces in a perfect jigsaw puzzle.

I did know a bit, however. I knew that the film was warmly received at its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. I also knew that the film marked Johnny Depp’s return to the big screen after a few, let’s say, tumultuous years. I was also aware that the film’s director and lead actor, Maïwenn had been wanting to make this film since 2006 when she saw Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Given the film was nearly as old as me, I had acquired an unbelievably curious mind.

And for good reason too. I watched the film like a stranger and left like a romanticist with the sky painted red.

We first meet a mischievous young Jeanne Bécu (Emma Kaboré Dufour) being kicked out of a convent for reading smutty books. The next time we meet her, Bécu is successfully working as a courtesan in Paris under aristocratic pimp, Le Comte du Barry (Melvil Poupaud). With his assistance, Bécu subsequently meets King Louis XV (Johnny Depp). Before doing so, however, Bécu undergoes a rather invasive gynaecological inspection by royal medics. She’s then informed about the palace protocol she must follow when meeting the King, including doing a silly shuffle backwards when leaving the room.

To her credit however, she does not follow any of it. Impressed by her boldness and beauty, the King becomes quite smitten with Bécu. To the dismay of others, particularly the King’s adult daughters, the pair become somewhat inseparable and Bécu’s status ascends through the gold ceiling.

The conflict arrives when Dauphin (Diego Le Fur) chooses to marry Marie Antoinette (Pauline Pollman). Antoinette and Bécu subsequently enjoy something of a fractious relationship throughout the film, often plagued by issues of upstaging one another. As the King’s health declines, Bécu’s power does too, and tragedy rises its ugly head.

Upon reflecting on the film, it seems rather ironic that Maïwenn decided to cast Depp as the King. Of course, the casting of Depp in any film is often a choice made by producers for financial reasons, as he has long been a highly bankable name. While the Depp of 2024 is less of a safe bet, he is actually far more interesting. Here Depp plays a character, which, like him, enjoys obscene wealth and an entourage of staff catering to his every demand. Depp’s Louis XV can quite clearly see right through all of this and craves something deeper. This is something Depp can likely relate to as well.

Furthermore, Maïwenn’s casting of herself in the film also seems like a perfect choice. Here Bécu is a bold, courageous woman unwilling to live under the expectations placed on her. She reads books in the bath. She wears what she wants. Maïwenn herself is much the same. She knew the casting of Depp in this film would be a controversial move, yet she did it anyway.

Despite the perfect casting, however, I could not, however, really believe in the love between the King and Bécu. That is not to say that Depp and Maïwenn did not have any chemistry, it was just the relationship did not feel as infectious as it needed to be to warrant a visceral reaction. Both Depp and Maïwenn are still very good in their respective roles. Maïwenn’s Bécu feels grounded yet light. Furthermore, Depp’s subdued King speaks good French and marks an interesting turn in the career of one of Hollywood’s great chameleons.

The film is also something of a visual triumph. One could look at cinematographer, Laurant Dailland’s gorgeously crafted shots of Versailles all day and not catch a wink of boredom. Not to mention the impeccably crafted costumes which leave one rather hungry to wear royal regalia and parade around the house.

It must be noted however, that despite Jeanne being a courtesan, there is actually not a lot of sex or nudity in this film. While this feels like a very obvious choice by Maïwenn, I just felt that the film required a little something more to make me really believe in Bécu’s alluring nature.

By the same token, the film also feels very grounded. It is well paced and at no point does it fall into the trap of getting lost in aesthetic. I would say however, the film has a much straighter approach than say, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite or Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

And because of that, to me, it felt like the film was missing a hook or a trick. It’s like viewing a beautiful church in the south of France. You walk into it and are instantly entranced by its baroque nature and 15th century artefacts. But then you go into another Church, and it is much the same. A lot of the awe then ends up evaporating. While Jeanne du Barry left a lot more than a shrug of the shoulders, it just didn’t have enough in it to make it sit apart from the other canon of period pieces already in existence.

Despite this, it must be noted that Maiwenn is a proper filmmaker. She exercises a level of boldness that many filmmakers should take notes from. I just wish the boldness of the filmmaker matched up with the boldness of the film.